WASHINGTON, Oct. 23, 2015 – Earlier this week, Subway announced it would phase out the use of antibiotics in meat served in its restaurants, and many in the agricultural industry haven’t taken kindly to the news.

On Tuesday, Subway said it would strengthen its current antibiotic policy to include all proteins served in its more than 27,000 U.S. locations. Its existing policy stipulates that only chickens raised without antibiotics medically important to humans can be served, but now it won’t allow the use of any antibiotics in chicken, turkey, pork, and beef, including when antibiotics are used to treat and control disease.

In Tuesday’s release, Dennis Clabby, executive vice president of Subway’s Independent Purchasing Cooperative, said the change was made to “address what (consumers) are looking for.”

“We hope that this commitment will encourage other companies in our industry to follow our lead, and that, together, this will drive suppliers to move faster to make these important changes for consumers,” Clabby said.

The policy change will be realized through different stages across different proteins. According to Subway, it has already started to transition away from using chicken treated with antibiotics and expects to completely phase out the practice by the end of 2016. Turkey products without any exposure to antibiotics are expected to be introduced in 2016 and take two to three years to become the standard. Beef and pork will take much longer; Subway hopes to complete the transition in those products by 2025.

The response from many in agriculture has been a little less sunny. Many have argued that eliminating antibiotic use in livestock entirely puts the animals’ welfare at risk. On a call with reporters Friday morning, Illinois crop and hog farmer Thomas Titus said using antibiotics to treat sick animals is “extremely important for a healthy food supply.”

“If they take away that valuable resource to us, that’s a big concern one from a supply standpoint and if we’ll even be able to provide it, and secondly just from an animal well-being standpoint,” Titus said. “Sometimes, those animals may have to suffer, and in some instances those animals may die, and that’s absolutely inhumane.”

It’s not just producers that want antibiotics to be allowed for safe and judicious use in meat production. In a release the same day Subway announced its change, environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth said it appreciated the policy, but noted that it should allow for antibiotics to be used for treatment. 

“Friends of the Earth and many of our allies believe that it is important for the sake of animal welfare – and for the economic well-being of producers – to allow antibiotics for treatment of sick animals,” Kari Hamerschlag, a program manager with FOE, said. “This will ultimately be healthier for animals and for the farmers and ranchers that are committed to producing more humane, sustainably raised meat for America's families."

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Hamerschlag also encouraged other companies considering the change to “put in place policies that allow for the treatment of sick animals.”

Subway’s own website gives somewhat conflicting messages on the issue. In a section dedicated to explaining the company’s stance on animal welfare, it states that their plan is to “eliminate the use of antibiotics in phases,” but later goes on to say that the company’s policy is that antibiotics “can be used to treat, control and prevent disease, but not for growth promotion of farm animals.”

“We recognize that antibiotics are critical tools for keeping animals healthy and that they should be used responsibly to preserve their effectiveness in veterinary and human medicine,” the website reads.

Some of the producers and agricultural advocates that voiced dissenting opinions on the policy via social media found their comments posted to Subway’s Facebook page had been deleted. Titus said his comment was removed from their page, so he decided to raise the same points on his own social media channels. A spokesperson for Subway did not respond to an Agri-Pulse email on the issue.

As Subway and other brands weigh the merits of antibiotics in their meat, Jennifer Koeman, the director of producer and public health for the National Pork Board, reiterated to reporters Friday that there is “no difference in the quality or nutritional value” of animals or meat produced with or without antibiotics.


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